Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from reader Jordan Sutlive:
I recently saw Anomalisa and was in particular blown away by Tom Noonan’s performance: Without his ability to imbue more than a dozen or so peripheral characters with their own tones and verbal tics, the film, despite its relatively lean screen time, would’ve been almost impossible to sit through. That doesn’t make the terrifying implications behind this much-hyped gimmick any less of a nightmare, however, which made me wonder, if you had to live day to day only hearing one voice, a voice echoed throughout your grocery store and singing your favorite songs, whose would you choose? (Bonus points if it’s not Morgan Freeman’s.)
Is it too obvious to say Alec Baldwin? Alec Baldwin as the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums? Is it too evident to say that I want his objective, somewhat somber, raspy voice describing my actions to me as they happen, making my life, while frequently mundane, seem, somehow, a wee more whimsical? (Add to this that harpsichord-filled cover of “Hey Jude” from the opening, and I’m all set.) Perhaps to temper this Amélie-esque fantasy, let me add Baldwin as Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock, specifically in his relationship with Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. Their loving yet not-gonna-let-you-get-away-with-anything dynamic is the gentle (or not so gentle) ribbing that I, in my self-criticism, am drawn to. The versatility of Baldwin’s voice is alluring. Some days (“These Days”?) might need the uplift of a Tenenbaums voiceover, while others beg for take-you-down-a-notch teasing, especially if/when I’m working on my night cheese.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Cate Blanchett. In no small part because I’ve been maintaining a schoolboy crush on the actress for 15 years, but also because she has an amazing voice. It’s measured and knowing, capable of conveying a deep sadness or great warmth with the slightest shift in inflection. Blanchett’s voice is likely most famously remembered for her somber, poignant voiceover at the beginning of Fellowship Of The Ring. It might seem a bit excessive to give your life’s narration over to the same soul-weary pensiveness with which one discusses the return of a dark god and autumn of the fey. But what better way to validate your annoyance with life’s many minor slights and inconveniences than to have them recited by an Elven queen? “The credit card offer came with the promise of a low introductory interest rate. But they were all of them… deceived.”
If I learned one thing from the odd Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction, it’s that improv legend T.J. Jagodowski should be in more movies (and ads for Sonic, while he’s at it). If I learned two things from Marc Forster’s odd tribute to magical realism, the second would be that Emma Thompson can vocally do no wrong. Whether she’s wryly commenting on the routines of IRS milquetoast Harold Crick or blowing up at Queen Latifah, Thompson’s voice has a lovely, warm quality that never loses its luster. I mean, realistically, it probably would—not even Thompson’s gentle tones could make, “This is your pilot, and this plane is going down” more palatable, but at least I’d be a little calmer as a rising chorus of screaming Emma Thompsons heralded me to my fiery grave.
I’ve always enjoyed the distinct, gruff sound of George Clooney’s voice. There’s something comforting about its authority. With such an even keel (a perfect example is his narration in Up In The Air), his voice is both familiar and distinct at once. I would love nothing more than that sort of calm, stoic, assurance behind subway announcements, for example. Bonus points if he uses “cuss” à la Fantastic Mr. Fox to spice things up.
When Jenny Lewis sings, I listen up. I’ve heard her voice change from the slightly hesitant, nasal tones of early Rilo Kiley to the folk-country yearning of her first solo material to the more confident and expressive vocals that power her most recent (and best) solo album, The Voyager. Call it an outgrowth of a decade-plus crush if you must, but I think if most songs were reconfigured to sound like Lewis, sure, I might eventually go mad from the sameness, but not for a long, long time. (I’m susceptible to any and all videos of Lewis covering just about anything.) That still leaves plenty of nonsinging voices that would have to be converted to J. Lew’s tones, of course, but her training as a young actor has left her a clear and distinctive speaker, too, perhaps more so than many indie-rock mainstays. Also, Lewis has the type of voice that I imagine will continue to change while remaining interesting for years and years to come (because I’ve decided that in this fictional universe where everyone has the same voice, that same voice will somehow age and mature like anyone else’s).
I had the entire Harry Potter series read to me by Jim Dale (audio versions of J.K. Rowling’s novels were a fixture of Adams family road trips), so I wouldn’t mind applying Dale’s stately tones to my own life. Dale’s knack for characterization would keep things from getting too dull, filling the days with the pinched Scottish brogue of Minerva McGonagall or the apologetic wheeze of Dobby The House Elf. Sure, Dale is an accomplished stage and screen actor with dozens of credits to his name, but he was introduced to me through the Potter audiobooks, so I’ll always hear him as the voice of the wizarding world. And that association will be incredibly comforting: As I’m slowly driven mad by this wretched affliction, I can just convince myself it was all the work of some dastardly Death Eater or other.
There’s a reason why I don’t fast-forward past Mercedes-Benz commercials like I do every other commercial on the DVR: I enjoy hearing Jon Hamm’s voice almost as much as I used to enjoy gazing at Don Draper’s visage on Mad Men. His deep vocal is as commanding and charismatic as the rest of him. I’m surprised he’s not used for voiceover more often, as he’s effective not only in those car commercials but also playing everything from a rival ogre in Shrek Forever After to a Minions villain to a talking toilet on Bob’s Burgers. The effortless cool of Draper seems as good a voice to follow in my head as any, so when I pull one of my classic clumsy moves, like knocking over a coffee cup at work, Hamm’s dark, velvet tones can assure me: “This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened.”
Despite hearing many times that he sounds whiny, I’d gladly listen to Tom Petty’s dulcet voice for the rest of my days. I put Wildflowers on when I’m riding in a car and want sweet, soft music to fall asleep to. Petty sounds like he’s always singing a lullaby, even when it’s an aggressive attack on modern corporate radio or a sex song. His voice seems to have gotten more mellow with age, too, meaning I’ll take all-ages Petty singing me through my day.
It would have to be a woman’s voice; nothing against men, but the thought of hearing one man talk to me for the rest of my life comes fairly close to my idea of hell. I’m sure I’d get sick of any voice after a while and forget the whole thing, but in that sweet spot before the novelty wears off, I think I’d want to hear everyone sound like Helen Mirren. British people sound better than Americans—this is just a fact—and Mirren’s dry, even tone would be a perfect antidote to the bullshit of getting through the day. Imagine Helen Mirren wishing you a nice day at the supermarket or Helen Mirren asking you to move your car. If Helen Mirren turned you down for a date, it wouldn’t be disappointing, because c’mon, like you had a chance. (As a bonus, whenever the real Helen Mirren came out with a new movie, I’d get to hear people talking about how amazing she looks in her own voice, which would be just ridiculous enough to make me laugh.)
As a person who views every day as an unremitting gauntlet of tests both formidable and ludicrously mundane, I need an ever-present voice that can render my moderate-to-legitimate triumphs heroic and the demeaning bullshit dignified. There’s only one man for the task, and that’s he of the mellifluously menacing yet paradoxically reassuring tones, Keith David. Whether doing Ken Burns duty, his silky bass expounding on both the joy and tragedy of race relations in America, or—in Community’s silly simulacrum of same—making the phrase “a Ferris Bueller-ian attempt to delay schoolwork” deeply, giggle-inducingly hilarious, the guy just gives life heft. No matter if it were from a solemn doctor or that chipper, incompetent person at the cable company, news delivered in David’s voice would make the tragicomedy of my days seem more manageable. Plus, David in my ear would carry the implicit promise that, if I didn’t measure up, he’d beat the ever-living crap out of me for six solid minutes.
Imagine going through a fast-food drive-thru to order a cheeseburger, and the voice that emerges from the speaker is that of Ella Fitzgerald. What a world, what a world! It’s one I wouldn’t mind occupying. Of all the people regularly named as the greatest singers of all time, Fitzgerald would be the easiest to tolerate on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. She was capable of vocal fireworks, sure, but she didn’t have to pummel the listener with notes the way some divas feel compelled to. At her best, she could be cool, subtle, funny, and even conversational in her singing. Listen to the sides she cut with Louis Jordan early in her career, like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” She’s singing, but it feels as natural as talking. A world in which everyone has the same voice would undoubtedly descend into Walking Dead-style chaos eventually, but the process could be delayed for a little while if everyone talked and sang like Fitzgerald.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, since it seems like we’re 80 percent there already, but if I had to choose just one voice to listen to for perpetuity, I sure could do a lot worse than Paul F. Tompkins. He already does the voice of seemingly half of pop culture for Comedy Bang! Bang!, and if there’s a better character or voiceover performance than Mr. Peanutbutter, I’m not aware of it. Heck, I just listened to him do Ted Cruz for a new Earwolf political podcast, and not surprisingly, he nailed it. I write this en route to a live Comedy Bang! Bang!, and while I’m excited to see everyone there, you can’t beat the voice of the almighty PFT.
Originally aired 11.01.2013
Stories of when things go wrong. Really wrong. When you leave the normal realm of human error, fumble, mishap, and mistake and enter the territory of really huge breakdowns. Fiascos. Things go so awry that normal social order collapses.
© 1995-2016 Ira Glass
If I’m going to be suffering from this horrible curse, I want the voice I hear to be one that’s calming, intellectual, and funny—but not overwhelmingly “ha ha” funny. That way, I could feel a little fancier as I slowly go mad from only ever hearing a single voice. Anyway, I pick This American Life host Ira Glass. I’m not expecting to hear a whole Ira Glass routine every time I talk to someone (“Each week on our show, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. This week: Can you go to the store and pick up some milk?”), but I’d be open to it every once in a while. Plus, if someone is ever telling me a boring story, it’ll trick my brain into thinking that a more interesting one might be just 15 minutes away.
For my money (and I have none, so you’ll just have to take me at my word), if you’re talking about someone who has a smooth singing voice and speaks with a warm delivery that’s perpetually smile-inducing, I don’t know that there’s anyone who’s ever offered up that combination quite as perfectly as Dean Martin. He may not be the best singer of all time, but he just exudes cool when he steps up to the microphone, and after all of the stage patter, celebrity roasts, and many episodes of his TV show, the man’s comedic timing was damned near unparalleled. Would I be willing to hear that voice talking to me for the rest of my life? You better believe it, pally.
The world is a terrifying hyperspeed nightmare, more so every day. You’re continually assaulted by sound the second you step outside—at least if you live in a city, as I do—so the mere fact of existence becomes a daily experience of wearing down your senses. Thus, I’d want to go with a voice that practically drips with rich, dulcet tones, yet still manages to give the roughly comforting impression of age and wisdom. For me, that means one voice: the charismatic actress Shohreh Aghdashloo and her sugar-on-sandpaper voice. She’s been in a thousand things, including 24 and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Report. Although she’s arguably still best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in House Of Sand And Fog. Every time she pops up in something I’m watching, a Pavlovian response is triggered in me: Upon hearing her voice, I feel warm and reassured, wrapped in an aural security blanket telling me everything is going to be okay. I suppose that might be a little dangerous when it comes to warning notifications about approaching trains, but it’d be worth it. Shohreh, if you’re reading this, please contact me, as I refuse to set a ringtone on my phone until there exists a recording of you saying, “Alex, you have a phone call coming in.” And frankly, my mom is getting mad that I never hear when she calls.